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Czech writer Jáchym Topol talks about growing up around Shakespeare, the difference between Czechs ...
2020-03-03 09:00:00

We’re Living in a Beautiful World
An Interview with Jáchym Topol

Jáchym Topol. Photo by Amrei-Marie
We’re Living in a Beautiful World
We’re Living in a Beautiful World

Nowadays, it is not your knowledge of Shakespeare that makes you European, but rather your readiness to help the Italians and Greeks tackle the refugee crisis, says Czech writer Jáchym Topol.

Read in 7 minutes

Łukasz Saturczak: Are we living in a swamp?

Jáchym Topol: We’re living in a beautiful world.

I have the impression that the characters in your book, A Sensitive Man, think otherwise.

This is a rather extreme view. I would rather say that they’re either happy or not. They represent a traditional patriarchal community that lives out of the way, in the woods or by the train station.

Buras, the protagonist of your novel, is a wandering actor unable to adapt to the new reality. He is driven away from wherever he goes, he can’t get along with anybody, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere. His life is cumbersome.

Do you not find this character relatable?

I – touch wood! – have never been driven away from anywhere so far.

Buras is a protagonist of a picaresque novel, which means that he is expected to be a wanderer. But, yes, the days of people like him are either coming to an end, or are already over. I’m not sure if in the Polish countryside you can still encounter wanderers, travelling in wagons and throwing festivals for the locals.

No, this is a bygone era… Let’s talk about this paradox then. You portray a borderless world – your characters travel around Europe without passports since they are Czech citizens. At the same time, however, they don’t feel at home in today’s Europe.

Before I turned 25, I had been living in a country fenced off by barbed wire. And yet today, in times of freedom, it has become more difficult for me to meet with my own daughters, who are constantly on the move. When I was younger, one’s daily schedule was different than it is now. One would work hard all day and then come back home, where everybody would gather around the TV and watch either Karel Gott or a silly movie. Nevertheless, that was a multigenerational community. Back then I found it foolish, but now I see that this is how family ties are built. After all, a thousand years ago people would spend time in the same way, but instead of Karel Gott on TV there was a fireplace at the centre.

To me, as a Polish reader, not everything in your novel is understandable. It teems with historical and cultural references, as well as local traditions and beliefs. Did you write it only with Czech readers in mind?

My creative process is egoistic as I never think about the prospective translation. Funny as it might seem, I write for my own tribe since I don’t want to be a European author, one who writes universal novels intended for everyone. Of course I’m sorry that other readers will miss a lot of details, but this is not only your problem as a Pole – even the Slovaks, who are culturally closer to the Czechs, won’t be able to follow many parts. Every now and then, foreign publishers insist that I either change or remove the fragments that include local folklore, but I persistently refuse to do it. After all, everybody nowadays has access to Google and can look up stuff. Essentially speaking, is it a problem at all? I recently re-read Andrzej Stasiuk’s Tales of Galicia, where the representation of the countryside is uniquely Polish, and entirely different from what you see in the Czech Republic. I didn’t catch everything, but it was precisely this foreignness, this otherness that appealed to me.

You say that you write with Czech readers in mind. I’m struck, however, by the extent to which your characters are immersed in European-ness. They are perfectly aware that they belong to this continent, they know European culture, quote the most significant European authors, with Shakespeare as a notable example. Is it a deliberate strategy aimed at illustrating how the Czechs are situated? Do you intend to show that they are part of Western culture, with its virtues and vices, rather than a remote island, ‘its own country’, which is not only how the Czech Republic, but also Poland and Hungary increasingly often conceive of themselves?

To me, Shakespeare is also part of the local folklore, a very intimate one, actually, since my father translated him. When my brother and I caused some trouble he would shout “a plague o’ both your houses!” While I was writing A Sensitive Man, we were celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Stratford man, so, in a way, he was with me at the time. Although literature has changed significantly, and for many Shakespeare today seems boring, we can still find in his work relevant insights. As for the novel itself, I never intended to write a textbook of my political views. That said, the character of Buras certainly resonates with the questions of what we have been doing with our freedom over the last 30 years. He is my age and remembers perfectly well the transformation, the dreams about the Western world, and the disillusionment when we finally realized that it was not our promised land. Nowadays, it is not your knowledge of Shakespeare that makes you European, but rather your readiness to help the Italians and Greeks tackle the refugee crisis. Of course, I don’t want to be a hypocrite since there are no refugees in my neck of the woods. What differentiates Eastern from Western Europe is that the streets of Prague or Warsaw are racially homogeneous – almost everybody is white there. It results mainly from the fact that we had no colonial tradition. In contrast to Spain, France or Italy, our countries are homogenous and not open to difference.

And the fact that we had no colonial history is being now used by politicians as an excuse for not helping refugees. It is a poor excuse; especially since we want to be part of the European family. On the one hand, we declare: “Yes, we are Europe; we are part of this culture.” On the other hand, we consider the refugee or environmental crisis somebody else’s problem.

That is true. It is because people always attempt to take advantage of their predicament, and Eastern European countries are no different in that respect. It needs to be emphasized, however, that 30 years after the transformation no-one is impressed with our scars and we have to start impressing people with something different than mass graves or stories about Stalinism, which the West never experienced. That is exactly how Buras, the protagonist of my novel, perceives himself. He believes that he remains interesting for the Europeans because of his past. Opening up old wounds exhausts me terribly, since I’m interested in the present and I prefer to discuss our alcoholic president who looks up to Russia and China, which is formidable. I consider it a far bigger problem.

Wait a second… the Czechs also open up old wounds? What is your relationship with the past?

There are books on Stalinism and the 1970s coming out constantly in our country. Even young writers rarely address contemporary subjects. They believe that since the world is changing so dynamically, it is better to focus on the past. Naturally, I understand that we needed time to process some things, but as a writer I have been interested in creating a contemporary novel that would stay contemporary for a few more years.

Your characters are tormented by history. It is like demons that keep haunting them.  

I intended to escape from history in my novel, but perhaps it is inescapable? Every decision we make and, even more so, everything we write is political. It didn’t use to be like that. Until recently, I ate what I wanted and dressed as I wished. Nowadays, young people live under massive pressure to ensure that their choices are responsible, that their clothes aren’t produced by slave labour and that they don’t harm the environment. My 17-year-old daughter makes a political choice every time she shops for groceries. To me, this is something entirely new.

Is your writing political as well?

My book became political because the former president Vaclav Klaus, together with his people, created a pamphlet with the title “Does Jáchym Topol have the right to title his book A Sensitive Man?”, which echoes the 1950s narration according to which the writer doesn’t have the right to do certain things.

Well, you should rejoice; the writer is not supposed to praise his country. He or she should remain critical and address tough topics instead of writing laudations for the government.

I was certainly flattered. However, if we take into account that this man was the second President of the Czech Republic, who replaced Vaclav Havel at Hradčany, there is no reason to rejoice. Perhaps this is the swamp that you asked me about at the beginning. But on the bright side, Klaus, doubtlessly, represents the generation for whom literature is still important. Two decades earlier, he also attacked Hrabal, so I joined a rather prestigious club.

I thought that as a nation you take yourselves less seriously.

Definitely less seriously than Poles who, because of the history of nobility in their country, use a lot of pathos in their stories. It always amazed me when, in your movies, I saw cavalry charging at the tanks. The Czechs are more pragmatic. The differences between our nations are well illustrated by two anecdotes. In the first one, a Pole meets a Czech after the war, and tells him how the Poles fought the Germans in the woods and in the mountains; how they blew up trains, and killed the officers. The Czech responds to it by saying that they would have done such things as well had it not been forbidden there. The second anecdote dates back to the late 1980s, when the democratic opposition was operating and the dogs carrying leaflets would meet in the Tatra Mountains. A Polish dog would go to the Czech side to eat its fill, and a Czech one to the Polish side to bark freely. Today, there is food and freedom on both sides, so the differences between our countries are less marked, I guess.

Perhaps the border has shifted? Perhaps it no longer runs along our ‘Czech-ness’, ‘Polish-ness’, or ‘Hungarian-ness’? I would classify your book, somewhat picaresque, as representative of ‘Carpathian literature’, like the works of Yurii Andrukhovych and Andrzej Stasiuk.         

I identify as a Czech writer in the first place, and then as Central European. I studied folklore and ethnology, so the localness is also very difficult for me. The older I get, the more I favour Hašek’s or Hrabal’s ironic approach, but this is a risky direction to take since it confines me.           

Before we finish, I would like to return to the problem of chasing the West. What was the point? Why didn’t we focus on ourselves instead of following Kundera and bewailing the fact that we were the West but it was stolen from us for half a century?

I wish we were a superpower, but, look, we dress like they do in the West, we eat like they do, we play the guitar like they do… we didn’t use the time to create something unique.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska

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